During his childhood, Brown grew especially close to his grandparents and his great-grandmother, Mary Dizenia, known as "Mammy," which instilled an early interest in his family's origins that later flowered into extensive research into his family's genealogy. Brown spent more than two decades tracking his ancestors and relatives and chronicled his findings in writings and paintings. Brown developed a deep interest in the material culture of the South, especially folk art and handmade, functional objects. In his adolescent and teen years, Brown was influenced by the aesthetic of the comics, theater architecture and interiors, and streamlined Art Deco and machine-age design. His religious upbringing in the independent, fundamentalist Church of Christ denomination was formative and lasting.
In later years, Brown became an astute and intuitive collector. Memories of his early experiences can be seen as his first and perhaps most important collection. He retained them, distilled them into their essential aspects, and they became the visual and psychological engine for much of his work throughout his career.
After graduating from high school in 1960, Brown attended David Lipscomb College in Nashville, Tennessee, a school associated with the Church of Christ, where he briefly pursued an interest in becoming a minister. In 1961, he decided to attend art school, and in the fall of 1962 he moved to Chicago where he first took classes at the American Academy of Art before enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). His first experience at SAIC was brief, and in 1963 he returned to the American Academy of Art, where he completed a commercial design program in 1964. He then returned to SAIC as a full-time student from 1965–70, where he committed to a fine art focus that he pursued with great intensity and originality for the next three decades. In 1968, Brown received his Bachelor of Fine Art, and in 1970 he was awarded his Master of Fine Art, both from SAIC. While pursuing his MFA, Brown received the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship, which supported travels throughout Europe and Egypt. Travel throughout the United States and in Mexico, Europe, Russia, and Africa figured prominently as a source for inspiration and found expression in many paintings.
Although Brown left the South for Chicago, he never severed his connection with the region. His life can be viewed in terms of successive regional experiences, strong senses of place that contributed to his evolving artistic identity and his work.
At SAIC, Brown was introduced to a range of art historical periods and genres. He gravitated to Pre-Renaissance Italian art; surrealism; American artists Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, and Georgia O'Keefe; tribal art from many cultures; the legendary Maxwell Street market; antique and thrift stores; amusement parks; and other places of visual and cultural interest. During this time, Brown was engaged in the emergence of an energetic environment of art-making in Chicago, which later became known as Chicago Imagism. Inspired by instructors Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, works by Roger Brown and a number of fellow students were initially recognized and supported by curator Don Baum, who organized influential exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. In 1972 Brown was featured in the book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945 by Franz Schultz.
Encouraged by Yoshida and Halstead, Brown and his colleagues began to look to the work of self-taught artists, visiting Joseph Yoakum, Aldo Piacenza, William Dawson, Lee Godie, Henry Darger, and others, responding to their works with a spirit of visual and intellectual curiosity and genuine respect—ushering them inside the cultural arena, not to an outsider realm. Brown became an ardent champion for the validity of such works, as equal or superior to works from the mainstream. Exploring and documenting art environments by independently creative artists and the vernacular landscape became an ongoing pursuit.
In 1971, art dealer Phyllis Kind first exhibited Brown's work, beginning her relationship as the exclusive representative and supporter of his work for his entire career. Life in Chicago marked Brown's official entry into the art world, a realm he flourished in and the subject of his continual, adamant critique. Collecting art and objects that functioned as source materials for his work coalesced into a practice and discipline that was shared by other artists, and reflected a collecting sensibility in Chicago. Identified with the Chicago imagist artists, Brown was particularly attuned to the zeitgeist, the fabric and textures and events of his time, which fed him a continuous stream of subjects and issues demanding expression.
In 1972, Brown met architect George Veronda (1940–84), and the two formed a strong artistic and personal relationship. In 1974, Brown purchased an 1880s storefront building in Chicago. Rehabbed by Brown and Veronda, 1926 North Halsted Street became his first home, studio, and collection environment.
Brown's media eventually included sculpture of found, assembled, and painted objects, theater and opera sets, and mosaic murals, in addition to painting and printmaking. In 1979, he designed sets for the Chicago Opera Theatre's production of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte.
Brown developed a mature visual vocabulary in the late 1960s, engaging silhouetted figures, nocturnal cityscapes, and theatre facades and interiors. In the early 1970s, he received acclaim for paintings of stylized landscapes and cityscapes as stark backdrops for aspects of contemporary life, the disasters series—paintings of exploding buildings (1972), and a procession of iconic, flat-patterned landscapes. As his renown grew in the 1980s and '90s, Brown addressed a range of subjects and issues including architecture; natural and urban landscapes; the dichotomy between nature and culture; disasters of all types; current and political events; social, religious, and popular cultures; sensational events and banal commonplaces; autobiographical, personal, and sexual issues; the art world in its many guises; cosmology; mortality; history; mythology; and more. He used the weather as a grand, allegorical backdrop for the larger physical and metaphysical forces that dwarf the human endeavor.
In 1991, his Italian glass mosaic murals, Arts and Sciences of the Ancient World: The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus and Arts and Sciences of the Modern World: La Salle Corridor with Holding Pattern were installed on the façade and in the lobby of the Ahmanson Commercial Development Company (a subsidiary of Home Savings of America, at 120 North LaSalle Street, Chicago. His third (untitled) mosaic mural is a tribute to the African burial ground at the Foley Square Federal Building at 290 Broadway, New York City, dedicated in 1995. In September 1997 the mosaic mural Hull House, Cook County, Howard Brown: A Tradition of Helping, designed by Brown, was dedicated at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago.
In the 1990s, Brown created sequences of ominous clouds and a series of paintings reflecting his passion for rose trees and shrubs. In 1995 and '96, he made the Virtual Still Life series, 27 paintings with projecting shelves holding ceramic objects—meditations on the dialog between painting and object, and the nature of reality. His final sequence was a metaphorical exploration of bonsai, in which giant trees tower over miniature figures. Throughout his career Brown intended his works to have the clarity and accessibility of folk art while expressing the conceptual depth and complexity of 20th-century life. He presented temporal events with uncanny prescience, giving his work fresh relevance when viewed against the ongoing progression of current events.
Throughout his rich and productive career Brown addressed a broad range of subjects in his work, including Chicago’s gay nightlife and the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s. Brown was a victim of HIV/AIDS and while he was loathe to be described as a “gay artist,” he made several profound works addressing the pandemic. In addition to paintings on canvas, Brown made two major Italian glass mosaic murals for public settings, addressing HIV/AIDS.
Brown’s untitled mural (1995, Italian glass mosaic, 10 x 14 feet) was one of several works commissioned by the General Services Administration to commemorate the African burial ground, discovered during the excavation of the Foley Square Federal Building at 290 Broadway, New York City. In this mural he depicts the victims of slavery cascading into the victims of HIV/AIDS. This was created in Italy by the Crovatto Studios. The mural is untitled but a sketch for it is titled Twentieth Century Plague: The Victims of AIDS. Brown wrote the following statement to accompany the mural:
On this ancient cemetery site below the modern skyline of New York City a contemporary tapestry of human faces, each made thin and hollow by the ravages of AIDS, descends like some medieval nightmare into a mosaic of death heads in memory of those of all races who have suffered and died too soon.
In September 1997 his Italian glass mosaic mural “Hull House, Cook County, Howard Brown: A Tradition of Helping,” designed by Brown, was dedicated at the Howard Brown Health Center at 4025 North Sheridan Road in Chicago. His statement reflects his desire to honor people and institutions that assist the most needy:
This mosaic represents some of the institutions that offer compassion and aid to the many ethnic, economic and minority groups in the city. Jane Addams started Hull House to aid the influx of European immigrants during the 19th century. Cook County Hospital offers needed medical aid to the poor and outcast. Howard Brown offers health care and treatment to the gay and lesbian community, who historically found fear and shame in seeking medical help.
(You can find images of Brown's murals in the Public Collections)
In October 2004, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues inducted Roger Brown (among other notable individuals and organizations) into the world's only known municipally-sponsored hall of fame that honors members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.
In 2012 SAIC graduate student Kate Pollasch curated, with RBSC staff, the exhibition Roger Brown: This Boy's Own Story, a show that explored works by Brown expressing sexuality in many guises, including the HIV/AIDS pandemic. You may request a pdf of this exhibition from email@example.com.
Roger Brown's rich artistic career was at once intensely original and personal. In addition to his consistent and enormously prolific life as an artist, Brown was deeply involved in the research of his family's genealogy, tracing his lineage prodigiously, and discovering relationships to Elvis Presley and Tallulah Bankhead within his family tree. Roger Brown died on November 22, 1997, and was survived by his parents James and Mary Elizabeth Brown and his brother Greg Brown. His legacy through his many gifts to SAIC is boundless and ongoing.
—Lisa Stone, curator, Roger Brown Study Collection
Roger Brown Master Artworks Website: You may view all known/documented works by Roger Brown, from 1970 to 1997, here. (Images for work from 1966 through 1969 will be available soon.) It works best to scroll down and select browse, then "narrow search by year."
Brown's exhibition history is extensive. He was represented by the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and New York, and his work was shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the country and abroad. Major retrospectives of his work were mounted at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 1980, and at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1987. His last solo exhibition of paintings was in 1997 at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago. He is represented in many major museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art; High Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.